The Five Peaks of Kangchenjunga: A Dance of Light and Shadow

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With an abiding love of mountain trekking, and knowing in our minds how strenuous multi-day alpine hikes can bring unique experiences, awe-inspiring views and new perspectives into one’s own life, last summer I travelled with my partner to India with a specific travel goal: to hike to an elevation of 5,000m in the Himalayas. Our search led us to this 8-day trek to a high-altitude mountain pass known as Goecha La, a trail that offers spectacular close proximity views of the majestic Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world. We were thrilled!

The Goecha La trek

The word Kangchenjunga comes from Old Tibetan and translates to “Five Treasures of Snow,” referring to the mountain’s five peaks that have been worshiped by the locals for as long as their stories go back in time. The five treasures are Gold, Silver, Precious Stones, Grain, and Holy Scriptures. The Kangchendzonga Himal range is spread across the border of Nepal and the neighbouring Indian state of Sikkim.  Sikkim is a tiny Himalayan state located in the north eastern part of India, sandwiched between Nepal to the west, Bhutan to the east, Tibet (China) to the north and the Indian state of West Bengal to the south.  Its capital is the bustling small city of Gangtok.

Getting to Gangtok is pretty straightforward: Take a train to New Jalpaiguri (one of the main stations in the north eastern rail corridor), or fly to Bagdogra airport. From either of these two places, a shared taxi or a jeep will bring you to Gangtok in less than half a day or so, allowing for a couple of breaks on the way.

Most of Sikkim’s life revolves around Gangtok and there are a large number of tour operators here that can arrange treks and excursions. Foreign citizens need special permits and arrangements to be able to trek in Sikkim’s national parks so we strongly suggest chatting with a few to get a general idea of costs and logistics, not that we saw much difference in what various companies offered.

Costs, approximately $55 per person per day, though not insanely high in dollar terms, appear steep in comparison to what the locals pay. This price bought us the services of a reliable trekking company, insurance, one guide, one cook, two porters, three animals and one herder. Sounds like an entourage, and indeed it was quite a spectacle. Our arrangements was geared towards a more relaxed trekking experience and at times it did feel a bit excessive, so we looked at it as a luxury / honeymoon trek. We shopped for The North Face rain jackets, walking sticks and colourful water bottles (the bottles bore the Sigg logo but did not hold up to the rigours of the trip, making us doubt whether they were genuine).  The trekking company arranged for tents and food supplies so we didn’t have to carry much.

Trek log

Here’s a handy chart showing elevations of places and campsites on the way:

Yuksam: 1,700m / 5,600ft
Bakhim: 2,700m / 8,800ft
Tshokha: 3,050m / 10,000ft
Phedang: 3,660m / 12,000ft
Dzongri: 4,020m / 13,200ft
Thansing: 3,930m / 12,900ft
Lamuney: 4,145m / 13,600ft
Goecha La: 4,940m / 16,200ft

Total round trip distance for this route is approximately 70km. According to some websites and based on our experience that estimate feels generally alright.

Subtropical forest

Day 1: Yuksam – Sachen – Bakhim

↑ Pretty trail through a lush forest!

After finishing brief entry formalities at the Kanchendzonga national park trail head and the chanting of some blessings, we set foot on a well beaten trail that snaked through dense foliage of the lower Himalayas. It seemed to be mostly a bicoloured world of green and brown as we were completely surrounded by thick foliage of various verdant shades while walking on a dirt trail that regularly received generous amount of yak and horse droppings. At times the sun was completely blocked out by thick branches and intriguing leaves of various shapes and sizes.  Transitions, from exposed areas of bright sunlight and scenic vistas to the dark comforting shade of the dense jungle made the whole route appear like a secret dance of light and shadow that could only be appreciated by trekkers and people who live and work in such areas.

The variety of flowers, leaves, vines, ferns and mosses around us along with the constant singing of birds, buzzing of bugs, chattering of the gushing mountain streams and other sounds of the forest kept us company as we sweated our way up about 3,000ft. Occasionally, a group of pack animals would pass by, jingling their large gold coloured bells which dangled from their necks on brightly coloured ropes.  The herders clicked, whistled, pssshed and blurted monosyllabic grunts, providing directions to keep the animals moving along trails they have travelled on more times than we could guess.

↑ A herder (wearing golden boots – it seems to be a thing here) directing his animals

Lunch was served at a spot off the trail where the air felt heavy and humid and all one could hear was a faint buzz of scores of tiny bugs that swarmed around animal waste. While the hot weather might tempt you to switch to shorts, I would recommend not to offer your bare legs to these blood sucking insects that leave painfully itching bites, and, in my case, long term scars (more below).

By mid afternoon, we were at the Bakhim camp grounds, just in time to have tea and biscuits before the whole place was enveloped in a thick dense fog, or depending on your perspective, the clouds.

Battling with unpredictable weather

Day 2: Bakhim – Tshoka – Phedang – Dzongri

↑ Monastery at Tshoka, the last village on this way.

Weather in the Himalayas, like most mountain ranges, is highly unpredictable; and despite previous hard earned wisdom on the subject, we made the mistake of sending our extra jackets with the pack animals.  This left us unprepared for a day of radically changing weather and temperatures.  The initial part of the journey, until we reach Phedang, was through the upper Himalayan forests dominated by sweet smelling conifers colourful rhododendrons trees bearing clusters of bell-shaped flowers of white, yellow, pink, purple or red. Walking at that elevation, under a canopy of vibrant flowers and on a trail littered with their scattered petals, was quite a dramatic experience and a highlight of our trip.

↑ Rhododendrons! Lots and lots of rhododendrons everywhere!

Past the rest stop at Phedang the trail crosses the tree line. Here the surroundings dramatically change from tall trees to stunted bushes, grasses, sedges and shrubs that have expertly adapted to direct exposure to the elements and weather extremes.

↑ Dzongri campsite with one of the better kept trekker’s hut and outhouses.

The Trekkers Dance

Today’s route was a short but dramatic one, and we were at the Dzongri campsite by lunchtime.  In the span of a few hours, we were covered in sweat from the most grueling part of the trek, drenched from the rain, chilled from exposure to the alpine winds and partly sunburned. This underscores how you should be prepared for all potential situations and changing weather — don’t become lazy and send your mountain hiking necessities with your pack animals, regardless of what your guide says.  There was lot more of The Trekkers Dance of taking off and putting back on layers on this day as we responded to the changing external conditions and moments of exertion and rest.

Hot soup with garlic couldn’t have been served at a more opportune time.

Getting closer to towering mountains

Day 3: Dzongri acclimatization

↑ Sunrise shining on Mt. Pandim’s razor sharp edge.

While many trekkers skip acclimatization completely, I am generally a bit cautious as altitude sickness can strike the young and the mighty with equally unpardoning severity.

We woke up early in the morning and started climbing in the dark to the summit at Dzongri La (4,550m) for fabulous views of Mt Pandim (6,691m). Rewards were spectacular and this was also our first glimpse of Kanchenjunga at sunrise. Thankfully the weather gods favoured us and gave us a glorious sunny day, for the most part. I cannot imagine the sadness and disappointment that many trekkers experience when they reach their summit on an overcast day. Our guide talked about how critical it was for this part of the trip to work out in order to keep spirits high.

I spent the major part of the rest of the day getting over a buzzing headache, some fever and a runny nose that would last and slow me down for few more days on this journey.

Under the shadow of giant glaciers

Day 4: Dzongri – Kokchrung – Thangsing

↑ Cutting through to the far side. Here we come, Mordor!

For me this was the most spectacular and fun stretch of the journey. A lot of that had to do with the lovely sunshine that accompanied us as we traversed stretches of alpine meadows ringed by mountain peaks and distant giant glaciers. The trail dropped about 1,000 ft reaching the gushy and frigid Prek river. We were back to the wonderful world conifers, damp earth, bugs and chirping birds. We crossed the river and started ascending another 1,000 ft along its eastern bank to the next campsite at Thangsing.

From this site we could view the entire valley leading up to the final romp to Goecha La. This was a wide and gentle U shaped valley and must have been glacial ages ago. A nice thing about mountains above the tree line is that you can make your own path and climb them, making the chance of getting lost less likely. This particularly excited my partner who decided on a couple of occassions to take off to climb to the top of the next mountain to see the view from there. “It all looks the same,” I tried to dissuade him, but in vain.  However, on his sojourns he did have the chance to visit glaciers, see stunning rock formations up close and see yaks and other animals I did not get to see.

↑ Thangsing campsite

Our crew did a lot for us. Not only did the animals haul everyone’s luggage and supplies, but the guys setup our tents, prepared large amounts and a wide variety of delicious food and shared knowledge of local plant and animal life and stories. We had tea twice or three times a day, eggs and porridge for breakfast, soup upon arrival at the campsite, and generous amounts of tasty food with Nepali flavour. It took some time for them to realize that we weren’t as picky about food and sleeping arrangements as their previous experience with foreign tourists might have led them to assume.

Inching up the glacial valley

Day 5: Thangsing – Lamunay

↑ Lamuni campsite and the gently sloped valley with Thangsing at the far side!

The Dance of the Glaciers

Every site we camped at was unique – in the middle of a forest, next to a river, around a windy ridge or right below gigantic glaciers as was the case with this site. My sleep was occasionally disrupted not by the grunting of horses and jhos (cow-yak crosses) which we were used to by now, but by distant eerie thundering sounds of the  mighty Himalayan glaciers, as these giant slabs of ice cracked, melted and dropped their rocky loads. I imagined the cosmic Lord sitting in Space conducting a musical orchestra, directing these icy behemoths to perform for us with the flick of a tiny baton. What a scary, but lovey show it was!

Another slow day, with neither a large gain in elevation nor a large distance to cover. We got to the next campsite by lunchtime and proceeded to hike to Samiti Lake (4200m) which is on the way to Goecha La. The campsite is at the far end of an open valley floor surrounded by tall peaks.  The view is lovely, especially under the canopy of stars after dark (Even though it is hard to appreciate while doing my business behind a bush in sub zero temperatures.)

↑ Hiking to Samiti lake for funsies (We’ll be there tomorrow again!)

Hello Kanchenjangha!

Day 6: Lamunay – Goecha La – Kokchrung

Ascent to the summit (well, technically it’s a pass) began in the wee hours of the morning (approx. 2-3AM).  The early morning hike was another of the highlights of the trip. Under a clear starlit sky, the bright crescent moon reflecting the earthshine was setting behind Mt. Pandim on our right.  To our left, glaciers on the mountain range facing the moon were in its reflected light.  Far down the valley behind us a thunder storm was underway and bright flashes of lightening regularly danced about illuminating the clouds that housed them.  And finally, in the direction we were travelling, the many faces of Kanchendzonga were prominent and glowing white in the starlight and fading crescent moonlight.  To say it was magical is an understatement.

A steep trail leads up to the light turquoise Samiti lake and continues ascending towards Goecha La. About two hours of climbing brought us to the first view point just as first rays of the sun illuminated the Kanchenjunga peak.

The Dance of Light and Shadow

What unfolded before us in the next few minutes was a simple yet beautiful spectacle. As the sun rose gradually and lit Kanchenjunga’s second and third peaks, the first peak cast a shadow on the second. After being under the shadow for a moment, the second peak revealed itself under a bright orange glow while the fourth and fifth peaks continued this game of shadow and light. This dance between icy blue peaks of some of the tallest mountains on Earth and soft golden rays of the rising Sun was perhaps more beautiful and unexpected than the most choreographed of shows, and the perfect climax I could have asked for.

↑ Prayer flags and a shrine at the view point

We putzed around the viewpoint for a bit, taking pictures and such usual stuff, while the earth rotated enough to expose the entire mountain range to bright sunlight. Dawn is the best time to hike in this area since peaks are often shrouded by clouds around mid morning.

There are two viewpoints further on the trail that take you closer to Kanchenjunga at the actual Goecha La, but by that point I was not only quite exhausted, but also discouraged to explore further due to the gathering clouds in front of us.  That said, the morning offered many occasions to wander the slopes near the trail to view wildlife that others did not get the chance to see, such as pikas and blue deer (bharal).

↑ Things changed from blue sky and bright sunlight to a cloudy grey within minutes. That’s when we started descending at a leisurely pace.

Returning to camp, we packed our stuff and began our return journey, passing through Thangsing all the way to the point where we had crossed the river a few days before.

↑ Wrapping up our campsite and on our way back home

Under the canopy of Rhododendrons

Day 7: Kokchrung – Phedang – Tshoka

↑ Rhododendrons – couldn’t get enough of ’em

This hike involved rapid ascent to Phedang through a sunny, hot and sweaty trail more or less along the river, followed by a descend to Tshoka on the other side of the mountain that was cold, misty and foggy.

As this was our last night of camping, the cook prepared an especially lavish meal, including a steamed chocolate cake for dessert. We thanked everyone for their services and tipped them well, I would say generously when compared to the wages they received from the company.

↑ Crew

Flowing rivers, chirping birds and winding trails

Day 8: Tshoka – Yuksam

↑ Tshoka village in midst of lush green mountains

Retracing our steps from the first day, we were back in a dense jungle on happily descending trails, crossing suspension bridges dotted with Buddhist prayer flags (as well as Israeli flags, of course).  We enjoyed the rich sounds of the many kinds of singing birds and wished new trekkers the best for their journey, and were really, really looking forward to shower and shave.

Such a lovely adventure it had been!

Flora and fauna

↑ Pretty birds!

The variety of plants and animals we saw on this trek was immense which is not a surprise given that the route passes through lush subtropical jungles, swamps, rivers, all the way to scruffy alpine tundra.

↑ Pika! Cute little mammals in the same family as rabbits.

Alpine plants must adapt to the harsh conditions of the environment, which include low temperatures, dryness, ultraviolet radiation, and a short growing season.

↑ Flock of Bharal – Himalayan blue sheep

On the first day of this trek, we got bitten by insects so tiny that we couldn’t see them. No see um’s are bloodsucker bugs many times smaller than a mosquito, but with a bite inversely more painful. The sting causes a large welt that can irritate the skin for several days (weeks in my case), causing severe (!!!) itching.

Some of my bites got infected in subsequent weeks and I got quite sick. So my advice would be to not wear shorts on the lower levels of the trek despite how hot and tempting it might get!

Also, sandals are to be avoided and hats should be worn at the lower levels due to the endemic jungle leeches – they can catch a ride as you are walking through the bushes or dive upon you from droopy branches above.

↑ Mt. Pandim and pretty flowers at Kokchurung campsite

Rhododendrons were in full bloom when we were visiting (late May) but are supposed to be even more spectacular few weeks before that.

Magic of the Himalayas

Going far away from urban centres to mountains, oceans, forests, or whatever, evokes different feelings in different people. This was my fourth trek in the Himalayas and my love for these mountains had nothing but increased. By virtue of their height, size and splendour, mountains offer unique and wonderful vistas and perspectives into the natural world.

Hiking past arch-your-neck-looking-up tall mountains, dark black, icy blue or bright white, whatever may be their colour, always evokes a feeling of permanence and assurance in me. I also feel quite introspective and trivial against the forces of nature – it’s good to be reminded how most things we stress about are meaningless in the grand scheme, in our journey through life.

So smile, be happy, and enjoy your final transit on Earth!